Home » 2014 » July

REVIEW: A Sportful Malice

david & goliath

A Sportful MaliceA Sportful Malice

Michiel Heyns

Jonathan Ball

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

It is possible to rampage into a book by a favoured author without heeding any of the clues he or she has put on the reader’s path. Thus I found myself, a third of a way into Heyns’ new book, increasingly irritated and then, mercifully, puzzled, by the narrator.

Mercifully, because if my slow-arising suspicions had not been stimulated, I might not have wrung half the fun I eventually did from this, his seventh novel. Heyns is too controlled and too practised a writer to present a character like Michael Marcucci without also poking fun at him.

Michael’s is the prissiest and most pompous voice I’ve encountered in a novel in a long time. He writes letters to his partner in Joburg from England and Italy, where he has gone to wrap up research on his studies.

Michael, whose father was Italian and mother South African, is interested in how writers have “appropriated” Tuscany for themselves by writing about it. He has the cynic and scholar’s distance to this appropriation, which in turn causes him to be blind to how he appropriates, and is appropriated by, this place about which so much has been written by Anglo-Saxon writers.

Michael is an insufferable snob. But clever snobs can be very funny, and Michael’s bitchiness provides the reader with moments of great mirth. His letters expose him as clever and witty, but also as vain and superficial, concerned largely with appearances.

Indeed, how things appear (as opposed to how they really are) is a motif that runs through this “comedy of revenge”, as the (observant) reader is alerted just under the title. The author’s intertextual references abound. The idea of a comedy of revenge calls to mind Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors and the novel deploys – successfully – some of the hammed-up elements of farce.

Farce develops its humour from the foolishness of unintelligent people and Michael – for all that he is a scholarly smarty pants – is monstrously foolish. While he is cuttingly observant about other’s foibles, and sharp in his observation of art, literature and the beauty that surrounds him in Tuscany, he is blind to his own faults.

An almost tragic self-awareness, coupled with comical lack of self-insight, creates the axis for the action.

In Tuscany, having inadvertently acquired a hulking yob of a “friend” on the flight from Stansted airport to Florence, Michael stays in a house owned by a geriatric couple of British artists. Augustus appears to be an absent-minded old man, and his caustic partner Sophronia, a witch from deepest Belgravia. Both are cast in rich chiaroscuro. Being hosted by the couple provides Michael with plenty of material to write home about.

Before arriving in the Tuscan village of Gianocini, Michael has used his time in England and in Florence to indulge his appreciation of art, visiting an exhibition of Caravaggio paintings in London, and various exhibitions in Florence.

Art’s function in the novel opens two main intellectual paths for Heyns to draw the reader along.

In the first place, it provides an arena for discussions about representative versus conceptual art, the latter being anathema to Augustus and Sophronia, who emphasise technique above all else when it comes to art.

(In one of the most amusing episodes in the book, Michael has an extended conversation with an art dealer, a conversation that pulls out every possible stop on the pretentious language employed by those who consider themselves aficionados.)

In the second place, the preoccupation with classical art rubs up against the thoroughly modern topic of social media.

Caravaggio, whose painting of David with the head of Goliath is shown on the front cover, was a painter who inserted his own image into many of his paintings. Notably, in the picture represented on the back cover of the novel, his face is the one that adorns Goliath’s severed head.

The artist therefore presents himself to the world, very much as people now present images of themselves on social media for public consumption.

Can the artist be the art?

A young artist who has piqued Michael’s sexual interest has been mentored by Augustus and Sophronia. While thoroughly schooled in classical technique, Paolo has developed an interest in conceptual art, but knows that his mentors’ disdain would put him at a dangerous disadvantage were he to tell them. And yet he finds the idea of presenting himself as Michaelangelo’s David – naked in public in the famous sculpture’s fey pose – beguiling.

In much the same way, Michael has represented himself – and presented a concept of himself – on Facebook.

Narcissism is not new and, for all its apparent sophistication in some instances, it remains a foolish and un-endearing trait.

Michael’s interaction with the characters he meets in Gianocini is what this story is built around, but for all its intellectual preoccupations, it reveals itself as unpretentiously plain, even slapstick in places.

But slapstick, in the hands of this master storyteller, is delightful and invigorating.

I thoroughly, happily, greedily enjoyed this farce.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in May 2014

REVIEW: The Road of Excess


WinterbachThe Road of Excess

Ingrid Winterbach

Translated byLeon de Kock

REVIEW: Kayang Gagiano

Aaron Adendorff is a sickly man and a widower. For decades a successful painter, he lives by himself in Durban recovering from cancer of the kidney, and grappling with a faltering career and the numbing grief of losing his second, much-cherished wife three years prior. He cuts a lonely figure.

Aaron receives constant overly cryptic and incoherent text messages from his older brother, Stefaans, a rehabilitating alcoholic and drug addict preoccupied with reconstructing their blighted family history. He feels beleaguered by the constant impromptu visits of his new neighbour:  chain-smoking, compulsively lying,  Milton-quoting Bubbles Bothma, – (one ‘b’ for ‘brash’ the other for ‘brassy’), who is prone to donning a creepy gorilla mask, over plucking her eyebrows, toting a pistol and requesting endless lifts across town from him.  He is wearied by the constant admonishing of his domestic worker, the indomitable Mrs Gloria Sekete, to accept Bubbles as a friend, and by her loud singing and unhygienic habits (which lay siege to his more fastidious nature). And he is plagued by insecurity that his agent and gallerist, Eddie Knuvelder, has abandoned and betrayed him through his patronage of younger, more fashionable contemporary artists; this just as Aaron finds himself at a creative zenith, delving into new themes and rediscovering his own artistic vision.

The Road of Excess is vintage Ingrid Winterbach. The critically acclaimed novelist and visual artist, who writes primarily in Afrikaans (this work has been commendably translated with great finesse by Leon de Kock) tends to write cerebral, philosophically and intellectually speculative texts which require active critical engagement from her readers. There’s no sitting back and letting the text wash over one here. You have to sit up and take heed. You have to concentrate. And you may well have to make use of your Google search engine more than once in a while to keep up with constant scientific, religious, literary and artistic references and more oblique allusions which permeate the author’s deft writing.

In this novel, it is the underworld and various artistic and literary depictions thereof which preoccupy the author and her characters Aaron and Stefaans Adendorff. The Bible, Blake, Goya, Hieronymous Bosch, various Romanesque masters – and predominantly Thomas Mann’s epic, Joseph and his brothers – loom large. The symbolic underworld for these characters, (the novel’s Afrikaans title is “Die Benederyk’) is in many senses a contradictory space. It represents a downfall, a space of corruption and excess, but also tempts with its verve, vitality and freedom. It is both dark and redemptive.

At the same time, Winterbach is concerned with examining the role of art and the artist in current society. One has the sense she is cocking a snoot at more pretentious, modish examples of contemporary art. (She has great fun creating Aaron’s nemesis – a cocksure young videographer called Jimmy Harris).

The Road of Excess has the feel of a complex morality play where characters represent certain archetypes. There is something innately theatrical about interchanges between them. The plot occasionally veers from verisimilitude, or gets a surrealist edge. Dialogue has a formal feel to it. Humour is used to great effect, and tends towards the offbeat and sardonic. Aaron Adendorff’s world is simultaneously burlesque and Kafkaesque. He is brittle and insecure and prone to bouts of paranoia. Yet one senses he some fight left in him yet, and much of the novel’s plot centres around him attempting to convince Knuvelder to include him in an upcoming show in Berlin (which he feels is essential to resuscitate his professional career), and attempting to reach out to others (such as his largely estranged daughters.)

Much of Winterbach’s literary oeuvre is concerned with family dynamics. Specific archetypal roles and relationships – mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, siblings and so on are often dissected and analysed. In The Road of Excess it is the complex and ambivalent nature of Aaron and Stefaans’s, (the golden boy turned career substance abuser) familial connection which is put under her authorial microscope. Unfortunately, Winterbach’s depiction of their complex relationship (rendered through Aaron’s patchwork recollections and Stefaans’ mystical monologues via sms and email) ends up bogging down the text. While the author is at pains to portray the inner workings of the former addict’s fraught mind, Stefaans’s constant repetition of motifs and issues which preoccupy him becomes tedious and heavy going, as do Aaron’s own.

While the novel never exactly plods, neither does it ever reach a full blown narrative stride. Instead it has the shuffling rhythm of a man bogged down by weighted shoes with the frustrating habit of examining every crack in the pavement. It is Winterbach’s wonderful character studies and her zany sense of the ridiculous which lift the novel. It also has an unexpectedly upbeat conclusion, which took me by surprise (I was expecting something far bleaker) – and as I read the concluding pages I couldn’t help but imagine the writer finishing her quirky tale, an inscrutable Mona Lisa smile playing over her lips.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in April 2014. 


REVIEW: Sunderland



Michael Cope & Ken Barris


REVIEW: Kayang Gagiano

The premise: A distinguished South African author drafts the fictional skeleton of his magnum opus while a brain tumour plunders his faculties, systematically causing cognitive chaos. All that remains are tantalising fragments of what would have been eminent wordsmith Charles De Villiers’s tenth novel, Sunderland, ostensibly a partially allegorical novel about an elite gated community built on the slopes of Table Mountain. A few months after his death, would-be writer and middling academic Art Berger, having recently received a 27th rejection slip for his own novel (working title: Summer Sonata), is approached by the deceased author’s family, and commissioned with ‘reconstructing’ said fragments into a publishable novel. The bait proves irresistible despite the enormity of the task. Art is hooked, lined and sinkered into agreeing. He must somehow transform ‘a series of pastiches’ and a ‘harlequinade’ comprising a cast of almost one hundred characters (both human and non human), into a work worthy of De Villiers’s substantial oeuvre. Game on.

Cope is, according to interviews,  responsible for the De Villiers section of the book. Seldom has the saying ‘all style and no substance’ been as artfully deconstructed as it is in his rendering of Charles’s artistic vision. His Sunderland, we learn, is (or was to be) a text grandly ambitious in its scope, with sweeping ecological and political themes, concerned with South Africa’s still tenuous social geography. Its author, we discover, was a methodical and systematic researcher, obsessed with minutiae. The novel, it is hinted at, was to have a grand, climactic finale. But these are presented merely as intriguing glimpses and alluring character studies, leaving the bulk of the imagining to each of us to make of it what we will. (“A story,” Art muses at one point, ‘becomes itself by what the writer leaves out.”)

Involving an intriguing narrative patchwork, Cope and Barris’s Sunderland is in its turn comprised of Art’s pitiful (unsent) letters to his remote and judgemental spouse, Taryn, his project journal (supposedly documenting the process of re creating the De Villiers text, but more often digressing into personal reflections about the fragile state of his disintegrating marriage, and a growing fascination with Charles’s alluring daughter, Lynda), a brilliantly conceived obituary, the deceased author’s notes and research (including a few Wikipedia articles), diagrams and visuals, emails from Charles to his editor sister, Anna, and of course, excerpts from his draft(s) of Sunderland.

Where the De Villiers sections teases the reader (not least because we are introduced to compelling characters we long to know more about, such as artist Anice, jeweller Karl Heinz, and savant computer programmer, William), Barris’s simpatico protagonist, Art, provides the novel with more emotional substance. Melodramatic, continuously self-reflexive and prone to drafting passages drenched in hyperbole and cringe-worthy metaphors (sauce on a mushroom burger, he relates during a bitter fight with cold fish Taryn, ‘tasted of ennui’, the patty itself of ‘ground up human tongue, bloodied and still sensate,’) Art is a selfish, flawed buffoon. Despite his pomposity, one cannot help becoming invested in his personal and professional dilemmas and sympathising with him to some degree. While his over the top writing style and habit of analysing his own life as though it were a literary text (he is a navel gazer par excellence) grows tiresome in patches, Barris tempers his character’s more self indulgent ramblings with some very entertaining social satire, similar to that found in Kingsley Amis’s cult classic, Lucky Jim, or David Lodge’s campus trilogy.

Certain plot devices are more successful than others. Art’s journal, for example is implausibly detailed with regard to interchanges he has with other characters, including Taryn, Lynda and his intellectual nemesis, Vernon Freshwater. But for the most part, in terms of plot, themes and character, the novel is surprisingly cohesive. It is a narrative patchwork quilt that has been deftly sewn together.

Stylistically adroit, conceptually playful and saturated with irony, Sunderland, succeeds as collaboration precisely because it sets out to create disparate voices; to comprehensively distinguish and delineate between Charles’s fictional universe and Art’s piecemeal conception thereof. And as readers, our ‘literary detective work’ (to quote the book blurb) naturally echoes Art’s own, as we explore the divergent strands of this cunningly constructed tale, imagining our own version(s) of De Villiers’s novel as we go along.

Those who prefer more straightforward, linear narratives might find this book a little too contrived and ‘clever-clever’, the authors making too much of a meal out of meta-narrative. However, those who relish intellectual and conceptual playfulness and enjoy ‘texts within texts’ stories such as A.S. Byatt’s Possession, or Ian McKewan’s Sweet Tooth will no doubt delight in engaging with this lively, mischievous and inventive tale.

Read an interview with Cope and Barris here.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in July 2014